Archive for October, 2014
In 1966, my friend Diana Neutze developed multiple sclerosis (MS). She was not yet thirty years old.
I first met Diana about ten years before this, when we shared English Lit. classes as freshmen at Canterbury University in Christchurch, New Zealand. During school breaks we worked as kitchen hands at the same remote fishing camp. I was part of her wedding, and she of mine. We lived next-door to each other as young marrieds, and shared survival tips as penniless expatriate mothers of small children in London. Even after I moved to California and she returned to New Zealand, we stayed in touch as best we could.
For decades Diana’s illness came and went. She learned to live with it, devising ingenious stratagems for making sure she stayed mobile and independent. Whenever possible, she refused medications. All she had left, she said, was her mind, and her ability to find joy in music and the beauty of her garden. Painkillers took that clarity of mind from her, and this she could not allow. Right up until the end she was writing and publishing poetry. (I reviewed a recent book in these pages) I introduced her, via email, to a quadriplegic friend who got her started with voice recognition software. When she could no longer edit using one finger on a keyboard, or see to read, she dictated edits to a carer.
Diana and I traded poems and, as her body slowly but inexorably closed down, thoughts about death. She was in my mind when Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino invited local poets to respond to Wendell Berry’s poem “Going Dark” at a 2012 Winter Solstice event. I sent the poem to Diana, and included it in my new chapbook, Earthward. When I spoke to Diana via Skype in April 2013, three days before she died, she accepted my promise to dedicate Earthward, to her memory. At her request, my poem, “Going Dark,” was read at her funeral. Here it is:
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
— Wendell Berry
My friend’s body is a brown leaf,
shriveled and curled inward.
Pain is a constant, yet
the fierce flame of her will
It’s not death’s darkness she resists
but the loss of a self transfixed
by what is beautiful:
a Bach air, the light
through her walnut tree.
This dark she speaks of
has no scent of earth,
no draft from unseen wings,
no sudden rustle in the undergrowth.
What can I say to her, and to myself,
this season of gathering in
our lives against the rainy dark,
against the ancient fear
that light will not return?
Just this: a dry leaf
fallen to ground disintegrates,
becomes the food that nourishes
all that sweetly blooms and sings.
My chapbook Earthward is available from Finishing Line Press. The direct link is: https://finishinglinepress.com/product_info.php?cPath=4&products_id=2129
Some of Diana Neutze’s poems can be read on her blog site, Living With Multiple Sclerosis.